If Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can be defined by any one thing, it is their ability to turn flimsy properties into unexpected hits. Their first feature-length directorial project, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, an adaptation of the eponymous children’s book, grossed $243 million worldwide on a $100 million budget, a feat attributable not only to being a children’s film released on a weekend with no major competition but to the trait that would become the duo’s trademark: a dense interplay of visual and verbal humor that goes for some kind of joke-per-minute record, lighthearted enough to be broadly appealing and sharp enough to flatter a viewer’s intelligence.
Their next two films only widened their profit margin. 21 Jump Street grossed $200 million against $42 million, while The Lego Movie, a film that is exactly what it sounds like, earned more than $450 million with a $60 million budget. And while a self-reflexive joke in 22 Jump Street cops to receiving double the budget to do the exact same thing again, the sequel is primed to turn a profit after its release this weekend, given its predecessor’s word of mouth and subsequent DVD sales.
Not only have Lord and Miller experienced substantial, and as-yet unabated box office success, they also enjoy consistent critical support, rare for contemporary comedy directors save Judd Apatow. They routinely get pegged (and peg themselves) as satirists, but the label does strictly fit them. A subversive streak occasionally manifest itself, most notably in The Lego Movie, which mines the endless properties licensed to the toy company over the years for pop culture gags but also makes the broader thematic point that Lego’s opting for brand recognition over the imagination their bricks initially unlocked dilutes what makes the toys special. A scathing social attack it isn’t, but it does show a willingness to bite the hand that feeds.
For the most part, though, the directors’ work is gently parodic. Lord and Miller do not have writing credits for either Jump Street film, but both films reflect the sensibilities of the pair who got their first professional gig on the cult animated series Clone High. A send up of both old-school cartoons and the teen shows of the ‘90s, Clone High contains the irreverent tone and simultaneous obsession with and tweaking of pop culture tropes that defines 21 Jump Street and especially its sequel.
21 Jump Street routinely calls attention to the fact that it is the product of studios desperately hunting for viable franchises based on pre-existing properties instead of investing in new ideas. That the property in question is a TV show old enough that hardly anyone in the target demographic would even know of its existence—the public screening I attended of the film greeted Johnny Depp’s cameo with surprise more than understanding—was the biggest joke of all. 22 Jump Street, naturally, makes copious jokes at the expense of sequels themselves, making fun of how they simply replicate formulas.
The film thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: by foregrounding jokes about sequels never striving to do anything different, it never stretches the boundaries set for itself by its predecessor. Explicit references to red herrings, repeated arcs and minuscule deviations in character abound, absolving the film of the responsibility of having to do anything to break out of those stifling restrictions. The buddy film also tries to comment on the sort of casually homophobic humor that infests any movie about male friendship, yet it also relies on such jokes for easy laughs. Above Lord and Miller’s other three movies, 22 Jump Street makes it plain that the pair do not break conventions so much as bend them.
If 22 Jump Street is Lord and Miller’s weakest film, however, it nonetheless shows how entertaining they are even when working with limited material. Jillian Bell’s Mercedes gets in a number of savage digs at Schmidt’s (Jonah Hill) age, deflecting his pathetic attempts to pass for a 19-year-old freshman by saying things like, “Tell me about the war. Any of them.” Schmidt and his superior, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) are also linked together in a hilarious revelation, capped off by a reaction from Schmidt’s partner Jenko (Channing Tatum) that obscured a full minute’s worth of dialogue at my preview screening because the audience laughed so long and hard.
It is moments like those that show the filmmaker’s facility with character-based, rather than culture-based humor, and they tend to be the funniest moments in their movies. 21 Jump Street also made fun of the actors looking nothing like high schoolers, but its best jokes concerned exposing how socially out-of-date they were; a scene where Schmidt calls Molly (Brie Larson) and she is mildly nonplussed to be actually called on a phone instead of texted is one of the smartest and subtlest jokes in the whole film. And for all the mania of The Lego Movie’s incorporation of other franchises (its Batman jokes beautifully puncture the faux-mature severity that has been erected around the character), most of its funniest moments involve the grotesque concoctions of Emmet’s (Chris Pratt) stunted imagination.
The duo truly stands out for the visual panache they bring to their live-action comedies. The chase sequences in both Jump Street films contain the highest concentration of meta-jokes at the expense of genre cliché, yet they also have a flow for both action and comedy that is missing from screens these days. 21 Jump Street’s big chase makes a running gag of vehicles laden with inflammable material simply crashing without incident, culminating in a chicken truck exploding for no reason. It’s hilarious, but Lord and Miller also wring suspense out of the chase, even with their multiple fake-out shots of objects primed for an explosion that never comes. A similar sequence in 22 Jump Street, set on the college campus, unfurls as an outright cartoon, in which the undercover cops attempt to keep collateral damage to a minimum as the drug supplier chasing them willfully crashes into every bike, kiosk and sculpture in the remote vicinity. One helicopter shot even tracks the cars entering a robotics lab and does not break to follow them, instead continuing to track over the building until the cars emerge as a transparent cost-cutting measure.
Compared to Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton, who parlayed the excessive planning and storyboarding of animation to craft large-scale but fluid action sequences, Lord and Miller bring to live-action the mania that animation enables. That has already earned them comparisons to Frank Tashlin that do not quite hold up (Lord and Miller have neither Tashlin’s consummate visual acumen nor his satiric bite), but certainly no one since Joe Dante has even slightly warranted the comparison. The filmmakers’ self-reflexive humor is fashionable at the moment, a means of letting an audience feel smart without truly challenging them.
What sets Lord and Miller apart is that this smarmy approach is offset by a genuine sense of enthusiasm all but purged from contemporary tentpole features. Fans and critics (and sometimes the directors themselves) keep making a case for the pair as sharp commentators, but their greatest gift to pop culture at the moment is reminding people that it can be fun. Their most fitting on-screen counterpart may be the astronaut in The Lego Movie, screaming “Spaceship!” with unmitigated glee at the very thought of building what he loves most. 22 Jump Street like the other Lord/Miller movies, may be fairly simple under its veneer of depth, but nobody working in Hollywood today is making dumb movies with as much intelligence as these two.